Scenario at Last

In 2004 I completed a setting, for soprano and soundfile (tape? CD?) of a wild text by humorist S.J. Perelman called “Scenario.” I haven’t been able to find what year the text was first published, but I suppose Perelman (one of the funniest writers ever, and with an unparalleled genius for wordplay) had been slaving away in Hollywood, where he worked on the scripts for the early Marx Brothers movies. “Scenario” is a stream-of-consciousness satire of a scenario for a movie, a hysterical profusion of not only scene descriptions and actions but bits of dialogue, stage directions, director’s complaints, Hollywood gossip, and other miscellanea. Since, after immobility, stream-of-consciousness collage is my favorite type of musical continuity to compose, I couldn’t resist, and wrote it for the virtual orchestra of my dreams, with impossible tempo overlays and crossfades, occasional microtonality, and including banjo, guitar, harmonica, and a complete set of chromatic timpani. I hired my old friend composer Michael Maguire to realize the recording for me and started looking around for a soprano.

Well, it took eight years to get one to take the bait, and not until Martha Herr came back into my life did I get to premiere the piece, which we did Friday evening to a rather ridiculously small audience (Bard being on fall break). The next day we went into the studio and recorded it, and now you can finally hear Scenario. I’ve always thought it was one of the best, and funniest, things I’ve ever done. Martha started out with the famous Creative Associates at SUNY Buffalo, and first sang my music soon after that period. She sang Babbitt’s Philomel on her college senior recital, with Babbitt in attendance, and was selected by Feldman to premiere his opera Neither, so I was honored to have her premiere Scenario as well. It’s a really difficult piece, 17 minutes with few rests, and dotted throughout with sudden shifts of tempo. She does a superb job, and I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear, in the flesh, a piece I’ve been singing to myself for eight years. The crazy text is up here, and Perelman’s vocabulary is so arcane that, even with Martha’s excellent diction and a good recording, you probably can’t figure out all the words without reading it.

I think of it as a 17-minute pocket opera for soprano and CD. Some will object to my use of the term, some to the with-CD format, some to the synthetic creation of orchestral textures, some to the constant intercutting, and many to many other things about it, but I hope a few will be able to hear it for what I consider it, a musical amplification of a wild and comically surreal text, in the intended same vein as Walton’s Facade and Virgil Thomson’s operas.


  1. says

    Wow, that’s fun. Rummaging through my Perelman archive (fortified by some Googling), I found that the text was first published in “Contact” magazine in 1932. “Contact” was edited by William Carlos Williams and Nathanael West, and lasted for three issues. I don’t know which issue Perelman graced; maybe you can dig that up. And was there a quote from “Parade” in there? And perhaps others that I should have recognized?

    KG replies: Sweet Jesus almighty, how did you find that? I’ve searched for that date for years. The quote may be from Parade, or from Relache or something else, I’m not sure. And yes, there are many other quotes, Von Suppe and Yankee Doodle and Garry Owen (second time I’ve quoted it) and Bach WTC and I don’t remember what else.

  2. says

    Well, he reprinted it in a few of his books; in “The Most of S. J. Perelman,” the copyright page says that it first appeared in “Contact.” I Googled Perelman and “Contact,” and voila. I discovered that a similar piece, “Entered as Second-Class Matter,” was published in the third issue, so “Scenario” was probably in the first or second. Glad to help!

  3. Andrew says

    At the end of the first issue, there’s a “Bibliography of the Little Magazine Published in America Since 1900,” compiled by David Moss, which lists “*Contact.* An American Quarterly Review. Editor: William Carlos Williams. Started February 1932. New York.” The cover lists Associate Editors Robert McAlmon and Nathanael West, and bears the slogan “Contact will attempt to cut a trail through the American jungle without the use of a European compass.” The same bibliography lists “*Contact. Original Series* (Mimeographed and Printed.) Editors: Robert McAlmon and William Carlos Williams. Started 1921. Discontinued 1921 (5 issues.) New York.” Dallas Public Library’s supposed to have the 1921 publication, but all I can find is the 1932, albeit reprinted in 1967 without either of the Perelman pieces (…”due to the inability to negotiate satisfactory financial arrangements with the author.”)

  4. says

    “soprano and soundfile (tape? CD?)”

    This is not entirely related to your post Kyle but it would be really good if a composer and musicologist such as yourself could come up with a description for pre-recorded elements. My favourite is easily the one used before digital recording – ‘piano and tape’. None of the following have the same quality:

    Piano and electronics
    Piano and pre-recorded sounds
    Piano and soundfile
    Piano and playback
    Piano and pre-recorded electronics
    Piano and digital playback

    Any suggestions of an alternative? Or should we just continue using tape, in much the same way as digital editing still uses copy and paste and the scissor tool etc.

    KG replies: I’m sympathetic, but *I* certainly wouldn’t try to do it – any term *I* try to coin, the entire confraternity of composers (if that is not an oxymoron) runs away from it en masse. I didn’t coin postminimalism, totalism or postclassical, but the very fact of my associating myself with them has made them rampantly unpopular. I’ve been trying to inure myself to soundfile, which I also didn’t originate, but I dare not presume to settle on any one solution.

  5. says

    Many of my colleagues and I use the term “fixed media” as their designation of choice. This has the advantage of being accurate whether it’s a CD, a ’78, a cassette or whatever. If someone performs the piece from some future format, you’re still good. I clung to the term “tape” long after I’d stopped using Scotch 226 (for many of the reasons that Ian Stewart outlines above), but finally switched a few years back. Since I’m constantly changing things on my pieces, even after they’re “done,” I should probably use “ephemeral media,” as the more appropriate rendering.